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Randall Denley: Doug Ford government strikes smarter tone in the wake of criticism over rapid cuts

Mark this as the week that Doug Ford’s Ontario PC government rediscovered politics. After a year of driving rapid change and largely dismissing concerns of those affected, the Ford team is striking a new, smarter tone. The change was evident in the way the government approached a critical annual meeting of municipal politicians, how it modified its sex-ed curriculum and in a recommitment to francophone services.

Reasonableness is the sweet spot for a government that hopes to get re-elected, but the PCs have been locked in a pattern of announcing big plans without sufficient consultation, defending those plans with a combination of bluster and hyperbole, then ultimately backing down part way. It’s not a style of governing that engenders much confidence.

At the heart of the problem was an over-reliance on corporate thinking. In the business world, a cost-cutting company typically makes plans for change, announces them to employees, trims its expenses and moves on. Time is money.

That strategy doesn’t play so well in the much more complicated world of politics. For example, municipal politicians are a group that no government can afford to alienate, and there is no faster way to rile them up than cutting their provincial support in the middle of a budget year.

This week, the government brought the entire cabinet to the annual meeting of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario on a mission to make nice. The premier confirmed that there will still be some funding cuts, but they will be phased in and of a smaller magnitude than originally announced.

The new PC approach on child care is a relatively subtle example of sticking to your guns without feeling the need to fire them too loudly. The PCs are not huge fans of costly, government-licensed child care, and rightly so. With a typical fee of $2,000 a month in Toronto, this type of child care is only affordable for the well-to-do and low-income parents with full subsidies. That’s why the PCs brought in a tax credit to help low and middle-income families whose children are looked after in the informal child care sector, which makes up about 75 per cent of total supply.

Many municipal leaders prefer licensed child care, and they really liked a 2016 Liberal plan that paid 100 per cent of the cost of new spaces. It made cities look like they are doing something, but with no effect on their own budgets. When the Ford government cut funds for licensed day care and ended the 100-per-cent plan, municipal leaders were incensed.

The government has found a compromise, offering to pay 80 per cent of the cost of new licensed spaces, the traditional number. Municipalities can top that up with an additional 20 per cent to get more spaces, or just take the provincial money. Day care spending has been boosted above the budgeted amount. It’s a reasonable middle ground.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford leaves the stage after his speech to the Associations of Municipalities Ontario conference in Ottawa, Aug. 19, 2019. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The new sex-ed curriculum is also an example of compromise. It is much like the Liberal curriculum it replaced. Most of those who wanted change feel there is enough and those who favoured the former curriculum are happy, too. Critically for parents who opposed the old curriculum, the issue of gender identity has been moved from Grade 6 to Grade 8. As an example of the tinkering in the new curriculum, the wordsmiths have changed a teacher prompt that describes masturbation as “pleasurable” to one that says people do it “because it feels good. “ That seems unlikely to be divisive.

While they were in Ottawa for the AMO meeting, PC cabinet ministers showed up in the suburb of Orleans to make good on a long-standing promise of a francophone health hub. It is an important step toward making peace with francophones, who had been insulted by small, clumsily-handled spending reductions.

The PCs have made key changes in the premier’s office and in cabinet, and they say they have learned from their difficult first year. The new game plan is to work with municipal leaders and other key public sector groups, not issue them orders. The goal of balancing the budget in five years remains paramount, but the government is now adopting a somewhat slower pace, to give service providers and the public time to adapt.

Pity they didn’t figure that out from the beginning, but for a new government, the temptation to immediately reorder the world can be overwhelming. Tough challenges lie ahead, especially in education, but this week offers hope that there is substance to the government’s new style.

Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentator and former Ontario PC candidate. Learn about his new book Spiked at randalldenley.com. Contact him at randalldenley1@gmail.com

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